The sometimes strained relationship between farmers and others over the use of rural roads gets a hearing before state legislators on Tuesday. At issue is how to deal with heavy farm machinery when it's moved on roads between fields and not have it damage the road surface, culverts and bridges. There's also a safety issue with big machines that are too wide for a single lane of a two-lane road and sometimes block traffic.
The damage to roads and bridges is no small matter, considering that some of the infrastructure is more than 50 years old and wasn't designed to handle farm machinery that weighs more than 80,000 pounds.
Under Senate Bill 509, farmers would be able to exceed road weight limits by 15% year-round — but for heavier weights they would need a permit from every town and municipality the overweight equipment travels in.
It could be a "paperwork nightmare" for some farms, said Karen Gefvert, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation government relations director.
The bill was scheduled for an 11 a.m. hearing before the Senate Committee on Transportation, Public Safety, and Veterans and Military Affairs, chaired by Sen. Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon).
Petrowski, who introduced the bill, says it's a compromise between the interests of farmers and public officials responsible for maintaining roads.
"The reality is that farm equipment has become bigger, heavier and wider over the last 30 years, and the statutes have not kept up with it," he said.
Under the bill, there's generally no width limit for farm machinery operated on a highway. But certain wide pieces of machinery would be subject to lighting and marking requirements to make them safer in traffic.
The bill also would create a new annual or consecutive-month "no fee permit" issued by DOT and local authorities for farm machines and farm commercial vehicles that exceed statutory length or weight limitations.
"The big concern is the bill doesn't lay out any criteria for denial of these permits," Gefvert said.
"There are many situations where personal relationships may get in the way of doing the right thing and allowing farming to continue on a normal basis. We want something a little less complicated as far as the permit process goes," she added.
The bill would protect the right of local governments to post road weight limits, according to Petrowski, who says he's confident that officials would have to explain why they denied a farm machinery permit.
"No one got everything they wanted in this bill. But it will allow agriculture to move forward, and it preserves the rights of local municipalities," he said.
Farmers often rent acreage miles from their farmstead. They're working longer hours, sometimes through the night, to run larger operations and feed a growing world population.
The potential for conflicts between farm equipment operators and motorists has increased as more people with non-farm backgrounds have moved into rural areas and share the roads with big, slow-moving machines and tanker trucks hauling liquid manure.
Town officials say it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair roads damaged by overweight equipment.
"Asphalt is extremely expensive," said Gerald Derr, chairman of the Town of Bristol in Dane County.
The bill offers acceptable compromises, according to Derr.
"My concern is it does add some to the maximum allowable weight limit. But I think most of the rest of the bill is long overdue," he said.
The bill could have an impact on Wisconsin-based farm equipment manufacturers, dealerships that sell the machines and custom harvesters that do field work.
"We just want to be sure that equipment can be moved. Let's do this (bill) right because other states are watching what happens here, too," said Nick Yaksich, vice president of industry and government relations for the Milwaukee-based Association of Equipment Manufacturers.